VATICAN CITY — A Rome-based sabbatical program for priests from the U.S. is being overhauled to allow even more American clerics to take time out to pray, relax and study in the Eternal City.

“I think this sabbatical course is so, so essential. Priests come here, I think, tired. They come here perhaps having lost some of that initial zeal,” said course director Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo.

“And what we find is that in those weeks, by praying together, eating together, traveling together, studying together, that priests again receive a sense of that initial spark that lead them into the seminary and in which they were formed and ordained.”

At present, the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at Rome’s Pontifical North American College has offered two 12-week courses each year, one in the spring and another in the fall.

Now, the spring semester will be offered as four three-week modules. The hope is that those priests who cannot find a spare 12 weeks in their schedule will be able to make time for a three-, six- or nine-week break in Rome. The modules will explore themes such as priestly leadership, art history, homiletics and sacred Scripture.

“It says in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus says, ‘Come by yourself to an out-of-the-way place and rest a while,’” said Father Larry Richards of the Diocese of Erie, Pa., one of the 33 participants in the 2012 fall program, which is running through Nov. 17.

“And so, to come to the heart of the Church in Rome, and to be able to rest with Sts. Peter and Paul and all the saints and all the churches around us, to be able to rest in the arms of the Church for 12 weeks, so we can be re-energized to go forth from here and do God’s will more perfectly, that's why I'm here anyway,” Father Richards said. 

“My goals here are to pray and get to know God a little more: to keep my eyes fixed on him,” added Father John Dolan of the Diocese of San Diego. “It has been working beautifully. I would say this is really more a retreat than a sabbatical.”

While Father Dolan has loved the “fantastic statues, beautiful paintings, murals and icons” of Rome, the one thing that has struck me him more than anything is that “in every church there is always a presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”

Since the Institute for Continuing Theological Education’s inauguration in 1971, more than 2,400 priests have attended the program at the Pontifical North American College.

“We say to the priests, ‘Come and see,'” said Msgr. Figueiredo. “It is a wonderful program, and it is always full; so we say, ‘Come and see,’ and you will not be disappointed.”